Midway through the second half of UNLV’s football game in Albuquerque on September 28, the ROOT Sports television broadcasters said something shocking: UNLV, they said, was a “program on the rise.” Less than a month earlier—heck, less than an hour earlier—the comment could have come off as nothing more than sheer hyperbole, the kind of exaggerated statement made by an announcer to pump artificial life into a meaningless game.
But perhaps there is some validity to that assessment of the Rebels, who broke away late in the fourth quarter to earn a 56-42 victory over New Mexico, giving UNLV its first three-game winning streak since 2003 and snapping a 23-game road losing streak with the team’s highest scoring output since 1986. Of course, after the way the Rebels, now 3-2, started the season—with a second-half collapse at Minnesota, followed by an embarrassing 58-13 defeat to Arizona at Sam Boyd Stadium that sent UNLV fans flooding to the exits at halftime—there was nowhere to go but up.
Yet things appeared to be getting even worse for the Rebels the following week, when they fell behind underdog Central Michigan 21-0 midway through the second quarter at Sam Boyd. Many of the 10,981 fans who bothered to show up to the 36,800-seat stadium were getting their money’s worth calling for the ouster of fourth-year UNLV head coach Bobby Hauck. It was early in that first half, however, when Hauck made what appears to be one of his finest coaching decisions: He yanked sophomore quarterback Nick Sherry, last year’s starter, and replaced him with senior Caleb Herring, who was moved to wide receiver last season after starting eight games at QB in 2011.
The move has sparked UNLV, which roared back to beat Central Michigan 31-21, tying a school record for biggest comeback, followed by a 38-7 win over Western Illinois before a sparse crowd of 13,017 on September 21.
Next on the schedule is a very winnable home game against Hawaii on October 12. A victory would put UNLV just two wins away from becoming bowl-eligible for the first time since 2000, the last time the Rebels had a winning record, with six games left, including the battle for the Fremont Cannon in Reno on October 26.
It’s a striking turnaround: During the summer and the early weeks of the season, fans and pundits debated whether UNLV should shut down the program—which has had just two winning seasons in the last 20 years— or save it with a shiny new stadium. A brief win streak, of course, doesn’t end that debate, and much is at stake in the remainder of this season: UNLV needs a minimum average of 15,000 fans per home game over a two-year rolling period to maintain its status as a Division I-A team. Last year, the Rebels’ average attendance over seven home games was 15,208; this year it’s nearly 17,000 through three games, aided by a crowd of 27,000 against Arizona.
UNLV could stumble against Hawaii and negate its forward progress. But maybe this year is different. Maybe Hauck really is turning things around. And just maybe Las Vegas comes out to Sam Boyd on October 12 and acts like it gives a damn.